Thursday, February 07, 2008

BPN 1001 Games for seniors -- The Interview

Since June 2006 an Onestat counter has been recording the traffic to Buziaulane. This counter lists the pageviews, the unique visitors and their country of origin. Most it also lists the favourite subjects. Games for seniors is such a sought after topic. At the memorable occasion of the 1000nd posting, I found an expert on games for seniors. He is Jarmo Roksa, a Finn working at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim in the Midgard Media Lab, a multidisciplinary project with goal to facilitate advanced new digital media research and find different ways to use new digital media. Games are part of the research.

Q. Games for seniors have proven to be of great interest to blog readers of Buziaulane. Can you explain this interest?

I believe we can find several explanations for that. Economical, social, demographical and even medical explanations have been used to explain the raised interest for the elderly games or games for seniors as you put it.

Economical: game market is expanding. While core gamers brought 1000 x more revenues ago than casual gamers ten year, they will bring only four times more within two next years. Digital games have become main stream and a socially acceptable way for spending the spare time. Marketing departments of the game companies are targeting new audiences: seniors are already spending a lot time with digital media. The key issue is how to capture part of their time for gaming. There is a good chance for this since studies show that games can contribute to the health (i.e. medical explanation) but also socio-economical (savings in the health care etc.).

Social and demographical explanations are intertwined. Loneliness and solitude is a vast problem among the senior citizens. Mobility of the societies has caused situations where senior citizens are living far away from their relatives. Gaming and especially social gaming could bring in the active communicative element into the senior citizen’s everyday life.

At the same time the population pyramid is slowly turning upside down. There are more and more senior citizens living in the European societies and in some Asian countries. This increasing group is more and more an interesting target group for the marketers; at the same time society and politicians seek ways to keep this generation active as long as possible. More seniors mean more workers at the social sector and since the following generations are smaller and smaller there will not necessarily be enough therapists, home workers, nurses and so on – could gaming postpone the need for these services?

And then, obviously, there’s a personal explanation. Grandparents are of course interested in what their grandchildren are doing. Creating games which connect generations together will have a good chance to succeed.

Q. So far I have seen two kinds of games for seniors: games from Nintendo like Brain Training and More Brain Training as well as general games adapted for seniors. The Nintendo games look like memory drills; the general games adapted for seniors are just for past time.

Yes, Dr. Ryuta Kawashima’s Brain Training has sold over 17 million copies worldwide. He has recently worked with Toyota in order to make their cars safer for driving by senior citizens. Some critics claim that there is no evidence that these games really make a difference, while others say they contribute to activate alternative parts of the mind a person normally uses and thus activates the brain. There is a school, which believes that in therapeutic sessions with demented people one way is to use for instance memory games.

You are right with your statement that adapted generic games are something made for passing time. But is this bad or good compared to a passive television viewing?

In near future we will see more games for seniors who take a game in a more pervasive way: Nintendo Wii’s innovative gamepad with the movement control has already brought generations together. For instance, sales statistics from Japan show that seniors have actually been pretty eager to buy Wii games.

This opens a possibility to develop games which focus on physical excercises for the seniors. Studies show that English youngsters loose weight after getting Wii, likewise alternative game plays open huge opportunities to develop games for the seniors that really matter. Just think what the games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Dance Factory and different karaoke games have done for the gaming.

And of course there’s a social aspect as well. Games can bring people together. Combinations of communication, gaming, communities, and self authoring are all phenomena of Web 2.0 which have taken the world by storm. Isn’t Facebook with its many features also gaming?

Q. Presently more and more seniors start using PCs for entertainment/edutainment. Should we be developing games for them specifically and if so, what kind of games: crossword puzzles, sudoku, adventure games, arcade games, shoot them up, serious games, simulation games?

Lot of this was answered already earlier. As there are different tastes among youngsters, there are different needs and tastes among elderly people too: some like sudokus, others like to shoot on everything that moves. One of my good friends, a jolly 67 year old Englishman, enjoys advanced flight simulators – being much better than me or any youngster than I know. So question is not only if we produce games for the seniors specifically but also how we introduce good games to them which already are out there.

I believe that for the seniors the communicative aspect has a central role as well. How to connect with other users? How to keep in contact with far away relatives? How to meet new people? The gaming so far has been stigmatized that they make people a-social. I believe that the question should be posed how games can become social plays with a key role for seniors in it – but they can also affect younger generations. As Dr. Kawashima recently said: ”I do not believe that games are dangerous/bad by themselves, but they affect the youngsters in a way that they don’t do what they should do – like study and communicate with the family”.

Q. Do you know Timehunt? This was an animated virtual puzzle leading you through
mysteries of time and history; it included a time diary for visitors to write, a bulletin board, and a forum of sorts. It was a kind of encyclopaedic puzzle. It was terminated by the beginning of 2006. Would this type of encyclopaedic games work for a group of seniors?

I have heard of Timehunt but do not know that closer. I interprete that many of the issues you describe are characteristics which we attach to Web 2.0 solutions which have become extremely popular. The gaming industry all over world is working with implementing 2.0 characteristics for their games. As I have said earlier game mechanism (scores, competition, interaction, customisation) together with social media (like chat, friends, share, create) is the way how the future of the networked entertainment will be arranged. Nintendo has its own communication and social channel, so has SONY with its Playstation and we are only seeing the start of it.

Q. Do you know of any research in games for seniors?

Especially in the fields of Medicine, Psychology and somewhat in Pedagogy studies on games for elderly are made. The majority of these studies are focusing on the psychological and neurological benefits of the gaming but I expect that physiological research will take off shortly. So while research now is “Games help seniors to stay sharp”, in future they will also help seniors to keep fit.

Game research as an academic research within other disciplines is still young – Research is still marginal but the interest is rising because especially younger generations are spending less time with traditional media. Media researchers followed shortly by sociologists have become interested in the phenomenon – but this interest has been focused mostly on the major and most popular genres withing gaming. Seniors have been in the side line.

But there are many R&D projects in this area of games for seniors especially in Japan and South Korea. Norwegian SINTEF is participating to European wide project in elderly games and results can be expected soon.

Just a little anecdote: Dr. Ryuta Kawashima’s games have generated 15 Million Euros in royalties. Half of the amount belongs to his university, Tohoku in Sendai; the other half was reserved for Dr Kawashima. He could have cashed 7.5 Million Euros. Yet this 44 year old professor preferred to donate his part to his university.

Blog Posting Number: 1001


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